At 15, Meissner taking wing

The sky appears to be the limit for the Bel Air skater.

Figure Skating

February 28, 2005|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

KITCHENER, Ontario - Kimmie Meissner's power kind of sneaks up on you. Just 5 feet tall and weighing 94 pounds, the Bel Air teenager doesn't look like someone who can leap in the air, spin 3 1/2 times and then land on a single, quarter-inch-wide blade.

It just doesn't seem possible. Where's the engine?

Meissner just smiles a Cheshire cat grin when the question is posed to her.

"You guys can see me as small and not very powerful," she says, grin getting bigger. "I know I am because I train a lot and I can get up in the air."

Yes, she can.

At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Meissner stole the sparkle from the perpetual crown of nine-time champion Michelle Kwan. The 15-year-old landed the first triple axel by an American woman since Tonya Harding in 1991 as part of a smartly skated program that earned her the bronze medal.

Kwan got the gold, but Meissner got the ink, with two photos in Sports Illustrated accompanied by the headline, "Flash of the Future."

She also has skated with Katie Couric on the Today show and had a well-attended news conference at the University of Delaware rink, where she practices.

"When I landed the triple axel, I didn't know it was going to be such a big deal," she says. "I'm happy. I like it. It's kind of overwhelming, but it's really nice."

For her next power play, Meissner hopes to wow the world here at the championships for junior skaters, which has drawn athletes from 40 nations. She will skate in a qualifying event today followed by a short program tomorrow and the long program Thursday.

The junior world championships often serve as a window on the future of the sport. Gold medalists at the junior worlds who went on to earn Olympic medals include U.S. skaters Todd Eldredge and Kristi Yamaguchi, Viktor Petrenko of Ukraine and Yuka Sato of Japan.

Meissner insists she's not looking beyond this competition, but when pressed about Olympic ambitions, she says: "It's kind of weird for me to be saying anything about that, but if I keep skating really well and keep improving, then I think it could be possible."

`An air about her'

Ron Ludington, who runs the university's Ice Skating Science Development Center, says Meissner is just being modest.

"You pick up on Kimmie right away. She has an air about her," says Ludington, a 1960 Olympic bronze medalist in pairs skating. "Now, it's just up to her. ... Is she going to be great? Is she going to be middle of the road? Well, let me tell you, she's going all the way."

If a skating career could be scripted, about the only rewrite necessary would be Meissner's date of birth. She is too young by 3 months to skate in the Senior World Championships in Moscow next month, where Kwan, U.S. championships silver medalist Sasha Cohen and fourth-place finisher Jenny Kirk will compete. Meissner needed to be 15 on July 1; her birthday is Oct. 4.

"Junior worlds is still going to be a great competition," Meissner says. "There are a lot of Japanese girls out there doing great. It's a good challenge for me there. I'm sure if I went to worlds, that would be pretty challenging, but junior worlds is going to be just as hard. "

But her coach, Pam Gregory, says Meissner would have gained valuable experience by competing against the world's elite senior women, seasoning that would help her get to the Winter Olympics next Feburary in Turin, Italy.

Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic gold medalist, and Sarah Hughes, the 2002 winner, were allowed to skate in world championships leading up to their Winter Games, though they didn't make the age cutoff set in 1996 by the International Skating Union. Those exceptions have since been eliminated.

"I would certainly prefer her to skate in the senior worlds," Gregory says. "It helped the last two Olympic champions, that's for sure."

That aside, Meissner has had a steady climb, beginning two years ago when she won the novice division of the U.S. championships. She followed that by winning the junior division last year.

At her first junior world championships last year, Meissner hoped for a top 10 finish and ended with the silver medal. In her long program, she hit a triple flip, triple lutz-triple toe, triple salchow and triple loop. Judges gave her scores ranging from 5.2 to 5.7 for technical and 5.1 to 5.7 for presentation.

Out-tripled Kwan

Meissner, who was 3 when Kwan won her first U.S. title, says she was "a little intimidated talking to" her role model on the practice ice in Portland, Ore., last month.

It didn't show once competition started. In the long program, Meissner landed seven triples to five for Kwan and received technical marks for her long program ranging from 5.7 to 5.9 and artistic marks from 5.4 to 5.7.

"I thought she should have been second, too," Gregory says. "But sometimes you just have to put in your time and keep proving yourself over and over, especially at the senior level. It's not often someone comes in who is a first-year senior and even hits the podium. That's so unusual, so we were thrilled with third place."

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